The Asseret Hadivrut or Ten Words or Ten Commandments appear twice in our Torah. They can be found in Shemoth (Exodus) Chapter XX and in Devarim (Deuteronomy) V. The Greek word Deuteronomy means “second law” and is derived from a misunderstanding associated with the writing of the Septuagint meaning ten times seven. (Go ahead. Look up Septuagint and read about the translation of the Torah into Greek. Why not look it up? It is far more interesting that the junk playing on TV just now.)
Now, included in the Asseret Hadivrut is the Fourth Commandment which is generally translated into English as, “Observe the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, as the Lord your G'd commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to your Lord your G'd; in it you shall not do any manner of work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant nor your ox nor your jackass, nor any of your cattle nor the stranger who is within your gate; that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your G'd brought you out of there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your G'd commands you to keep the Sabbath day.”
I call your attention to the entire fourth commandment because we are approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the three days of the Jewish year which we in America have labeled the High Holy Days. The reason for that label is that few Jews know much about Judaism and therefore imagine that these three days must be more important than the Shabbat which comes every week.
The truth is otherwise. Jewish tradition teaches that the Shabbat is the highest holy day as evidenced by the fact that the Shabbat and not any other holy day is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Rosh Hashanah is of course also prescribed by the Torah. In Bamidbor XXIX, Verse 1 we are told to have a “holy convocation” on the first day of the seventh month. It is also “ a day of blowing the horn” (Shofar).
Yom Kippur, called the Day of At-One-Ment, is located in Vayikro (Leviticus) XXIII and elsewhere in the Torah.
Indeed, these days are important to us. Yet, it is the Sabbath which is our highest holy day.
There are only a few Sabbath observers in the United States. The largest number of Jews in America observe no religion. Most American Jews are therefore seldom acquainted with the advantages of keeping the Sabbath.
Consider this: Sabbath observance relieves us of the stress of everyday life. Everyone, including our animals, needs to rest one day a week. Failure to do so is a truly gruesome prospect. It is easy to understand that other people have instituted a one day rest among themselves in direct imitation of the Jewish Sabbath. Hence Sunday among Christians is viewed as the Sabbath so moved to the first day of the week in order not to appear Jewish. It has been told that the very wealthy Jacob Schiff, a mogul of money who was one of the founders of the great Wall Street banks, attended Shabbat services every week. He refused to do any business on the Shabbat and would not leave the beth haknesset on Shabbat even when some business associates visited him there and told him about this or that panic or money making opportunity. Evidently Schiff knew what was and is important in this world.
Now if you do not work on the Shabbat but stay home, or play golf, or go shopping, you lose a great deal. Far better to attend the Beth Haknesseth, i.e. the synagogue (syn = together and agogein = assemble) of your choice. This is important for a number of reasons. Attendance at a “beth haknesset” creates a physical wall around ourselves and the outside world with all its worries and annoyances and frenzy. Inside a beth haknesset we are surrounded by Jewish symbols exhibited in stained glass windows or placed at the front of the sanctuary. No phones ring to drag us back into the world of business (Keep your cell phone at home). No one demands anything nor do we have to listen to complaints or worry about the stock market. We are in a different world inside a beth haknesset. Here we have a world of friends and a world of kindness. There is no competition in a beth haknesset. No one is selling anything. All are equals in the presence of G'd. The poor are not known for their poverty. The rich are not known for their wealth. Everyone is welcome and everyone can be and is called to the Torah. You need not even be Jewish to be welcome. Every week, some of our non-Jewish friends visit us. They and we listen to the reading of Torah which is so great a weekly experience that it carries us through all the pressures of the week.
Now, you may say that you don’t believe that the Torah is anything more than a human record written by humans. Good enough. So come to the beth haknesset next Shabbat and help us understand your opinion. We, at Shaarey Zedek discuss each “aliyah”, each segment of the weekly Torah portion, with the Rabbi, who invites our opinion. Come see us on Shabbat. Let us know what you think.
Surely anyone can agree that the Torah is, at a minimum, a record of the common experience of mankind. It is also our history. It also teaches ethics. It also deals with law. It is also a travel log. There are many stories in the Torah which may appear childish at first glance and are really profound on more investigation. So come. Why should you be deprived of a tremendous experience each week? After all, you can always play golf on Sunday.
The Shabbat has yet another function for us in America. We are a small minority. Therefore we have mainly non-Jewish associates and friends because statistically that has to be so. That is very good. There is not one reason on earth why we should not have friends among our non-Jewish neighbors. Nevertheless, we need to renew our Jewish identity once a week. We can do so by keeping the Sabbath and visiting the beth haknesset. Here we learn about Jewish beliefs and practices among other Jews. Here we enjoy seeing a youngster become Bat/Bar Mitzvah and continuing our four thousand year old tradition. Here we learn self-respect. Here we learn that we are somebody in this world. Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy and it will show. For example, Dr. Ursula Falk has a Mogen Dovid hanging on the wall of her office which cannot be overlooked by her patients as they face her. Such a symbol of Jewishness enhances the psychotherapist and the patient. It means that the patient is in the presence of an ethical person who will help because she believes she should, just as those who keep the Shabbat are reminded every week what is required of us. (Read it again. It is in Amos).
The Shabbat is always a learning experience. Because Hebrew is used in our services we need to learn some Hebrew. Now isn’t it a great experience to learn at least some parts of a foreign language? Come to the beth haknesset and learn Hebrew. Every beth haknesset has Hebrew lessons so that the Shabbat observers can follow the prayers and Torah reading. Try it. You will love it.
We saw before that Shabbat is a higher holy day than either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur despite the popular belief that it is otherwise. This is true because we can hardly sustain ourselves with only a once a year infusion of Jewishness. We need this every week. Many people know this and therefore we have often discovered that people who had not kept the Shabbat for years return to that practice in their retirement.
Now suppose you are absolutely convinced that you must work on Saturday and cannot come to “shul”, like it or not. Well now, what prevents you and the family from lighting two Shabbat candles on Friday night? Surely we can sing a Shabbat hymn like “Sheer Hamaloth”, make the blessing over the wine and the bread and say the Birkat Hamosone, the “grace after meals” after we have eaten. Why not? Try it. It keeps the family together. Everybody will be so happy to come to your house for Shabbat dinner every Friday. Look at the great advantage of coming together with all your family every Friday night and feeling no compulsion to stare at the idiot box. Isn’t that great? Why should you and your family be deprived of Shabbat dinner? Enjoy.
So let us make a deal. Look at your calendar. Pick a Saturday. Tell everyone you will not be available for any business that day. Just as if you were out-of-town. Then go to “shul” that day. No doubt you’ll see people you know. Just do it one day. It will liberate you and make a Mensch out of you as you deserve. See you in “shul”.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.